• Marriage and Mary Shelley

by Arthur Paul Patterson

I WAS SITTING in Merk's restaurant out on Pembina Highway with Bev in 1990 when I solemnly swore that if I were to do it again, I definitely would not want to be married. At the time I knew that marriage left a very sour taste in my mouth. It wasn't only that I hadn't taken care of my marriage of seventeen years well enough to make it worthwhile, it was the whole idea of being married that irked me.

A deeper understanding of marriage

image by Alex Iby

I joked about marriage being a socio-economic relationship which was merely functional to get a mortgage and a huge debt load that ensured you had to stay together. Rightly or wrongly, I felt like an economic drone bringing home money to keep something going that was hardly satisfying. I complained about the lack of freedom and the way in which marriage seemed to bring out the worst in people who might otherwise be good to know. The institution seemed to consist of strictures that made it very difficult to be free. Marriage gave each partner ammunition in keeping one another from truly being themselves, taking risks, and growing as individuals. It seemed to give implicit permission to be brutal, base, unkind and unloving. As I uttered threats against the holy institution, the so-called "sacrament of marriage", I became increasingly bitter.

It was the sort of bitterness that comes when you have been deeply let down by what you pinned your hopes on. I didn't have the courage to admit that, in reality, there was nothing more significant to me than a relationship with a partner. If I were honest, I wanted to be married. Pain, hurt and guilt skewed my thoughts, making my most impassioned pronouncements about marriage diabolical, into lies. I didn't even know I was lying. I walked away feeling, like a libertine, disentangled from the whole idea of marriage and its stranglehold on my soul.

Mary Shelley’s Parents

Mary Wollstonecraft and William Godwin, Mary Shelley's parents, would have understood. They shared similar views on marriage with my 1990 luncheon self. They were flagrant anti-matrimonialists. Mary Wollstonecraft not only kept her name but also, to show that women could own property, in distinction from merely being property owned by men, owned a separate cottage near her partner William. Both wrote and spoke heatedly about the lack of freedom that marriage brings, and yet, under the pressure of society and out of compassion toward their children who would be considered illegitimate, they decided to contradict their convictions by marrying on March 29, 1797. Their wedding date was an indiscrete five months before the birth of their daughter, Mary Wollstonecraft Godwin, on August 30.

Formally it was a short lived marriage since Mary Wollstonecraft died in the childbirth of her daughter Mary Godwin/Shelley. Undoubtedly the sanctimonious saints of her society may have considered it her just reward. Regardless, her acquiescence to marriage gave her daughter legitimacy but it did a lot more. The circumstances around her mother's death led Mary Shelley later to equate birth with societal legitimacy and death with marriage and children.

Whether a product of some unhealthy family karma or teenage romantic rebellion, Mary Godwin reasserted the family penchant for anti-marriage by eloping with Percy Bysshe Shelley when she was but seventeen years old. Percy was already married, in fact, recently remarried on March 24, 1814 to ensure the legitimacy of his children with Harriet. Percy, however, had cynical ideas of marriage of his own.

abandoned girl

Image by Pikwizard

He said that his heartless marriage was a calamity and that union with his wife, Harriet, was a revolting duty: "I felt as if a dead and living body had been linked together in loathsome and horrible communion." The circumstances around his and Mary's elopement were not far off the mark set by these earlier comments on sexuality. He and Mary had their first intimate encounter at the grave of Mary Wollstonecraft in the St. Pancras' Church cemetery. Again the issues of birth, death, procreation and illegitimacy become embodied in Mary's life.

The much reformed anti-matrimonialist, William Godwin, stepped up to the plate for conservative society and forbade such a union between his daughter and the rakish Irish poet, Percy Shelley. In an attempt to break up the union, he virtually kept her under house arrest but, with the help of her stepsister Claire Claremont (a product of a dubious union as well), Mary made her way to Percy who was nearly driven to suicide by laudanum.

True libertines in thought and in action, they made their way to the Continent. Free love was the standard between the threesome: Claire, Mary and Percy. But the complexity of relationships and the effects of multiple bonding eventually took their toll, straining the alliance. Upon return to England, another association with illegitimacy, procreation, and death was soon to be encountered. In February of 1815, Mary gave birth to an illegitimate baby girl who died March 2. In the meantime, relatively insensitive to Mary's grief, prolific Percy, while attempting to recreate an English version of Greek sexual mores, masterminded intimacy between Mary and his friend Hogg. He invited his estranged wife Harriet to live with him, Mary and Claire and Hogg. Harriet refused.

The Ghost-storytelling Summer

This takes us up to the infamous Ghost-storytelling summer of 1816 when Percy, Mary, their child William, and Claire took a holiday with Lord Byron and his physician, John William Polidori, at the Villa Diodati in Switzerland. Again, there is a confluence of illegitimacy, birth, creation and death. Frankenstein; or, the Modern Prometheus was conceived in a context where scientific theories of life's origins, avant-garde views of sexuality, ghost stories and the issues of child-rearing responsibility were raised.

The vacationers returned home to encounter two other tragedies of childbirth. On October 9, 1816, Fanny Imlay (Mary's stepsister and illegitimate daughter of Mary Wollstonecraft) committed suicide, unable to live with her financial problems and the burden of her illegitimacy. Harriet Shelley, Percy's first wife, pregnant by an unknown lover, also drowned herself in the Serpentine River on December 10.

In spite of these two suicides, Percy and Mary were wed only twenty days later on December 30, 1816, thus granting legitimacy to their union and their offspring. Instead of the mother dying in childbirth, as in Mary Wollstonecraft's case, the remaining story of Percy and Mary Shelley's marriage recounts that all but one of their children died due to the driven lifestyle of their parents.

Mary Shelley was pregnant five times in her eight year relationship with a man whose dreams, which she shared, may have driven their children to an early grave. She was rejected as an outcast in her society due to the reputation of her radical mother and father, and later, because of her relationship with the promiscuous Percy Shelley and Lord Byron. While initially seeing it as an occasion for her own domestic fulfillment and a bid for some respectability, Mary later realized that she carried the burden of the suicide of Harriet, Percy Shelley's first wife. She felt that the death of her own children and husband were linked to her complicity in that former death. Finally, Mary was rejected and abandoned by the very father who questioned the importance of marriage and family. Altogether, this recurrent theme of blighted creation, before and after the summer of 1816, accounts for Mary's preoccupation with marriage, family and responsibility in her novel Frankenstein. In her later novels, these themes become even more prevalent.

If there is any question about the fact that Mary is connecting the creation of Victor Frankenstein's Monster with the disruption of his relationship to his financé Elizabeth, it evaporates when we read the account of his dream:

I slept, indeed, but I was disturbed by the wildest dreams. I thought I saw Elizabeth, in the bloom of health, walking in the streets of Ingolstadt. Delighted and surprised, I embraced her; but as I imprinted the first kiss on her lips, they became livid with the hue of death; her features appeared to change, and I thought that I held the corpse of my dead mother in my arms; a shroud enveloped her form, and I saw the grave-worms crawling in the folds of the flannel. I started from my sleep with horror; a cold dew covered my forehead, my teeth chattered, and every limb became convulsed: when, by the dim and yellow light of the moon, as it forced its way through the window shutters, I beheld the wretch - the miserable monster whom I had created.

Mary conjured a ghostly apparition of a recent event at St. Pancras' graveyard, a passionate kiss that turns to death, and especially, the transmutation of Elizabeth into the dead Caroline Beaufort, Victor Frankenstein's mother. This dream took place right after Victor was at the height of his creative powers. His creature was born but it was a catastrophe. After pouring his life into a project that cost him so much pain and suffering, dedication and preparation, he falls into sleep exhausted and deeply regretful about what he has created. The Creature is ugly, uneducated, totally dependent and nothing to be proud of. His offspring separates him from the love of his life, Elizabeth. Mary, ironically through Victor, shows what it is to be the vehicle of life. The critic Moers says that the novel is the first glimpse that men had into childbirth and its after effects.

Backdrop to the Novel and our Lives

The story of Mary and Percy Shelley's marriage is a remarkable backdrop to the novel Mary created; but, it is an even more incredible template through which to view our relationships and our projects. In my mind's eye, I see three celluloid transparencies laid upon one another upon an illuminated table. The first transparency, a blue one, visually illustrates the people, life and events of Mary Shelley. The story of Mary's marriage that I just told is on this celluloid tapestry. Upon this collage is placed the novel Frankenstein, a classic comic-book style. It has a green hue. The aristocratic Shelley family and the Frankenstein's portrait lie one upon the other displaying a cordial, privileged and indulgent family.

The dream sequence and Mary and Percy's first encounter in the graveyard are co-mingled. The hard-working DeLaceys are there too. Etched lightly beneath them is a refugee family from the French Revolution who while poor still maintain an interest in literature and music yet through poverty are brought closer together. Transposed upon the images of Mary and Percy Shelley, I see the strained faces of Victor and Elizabeth, separated and distant from one another. A fire and a wall of ice separate the Shelleys; whereas, the Frankenstein couple are barred from touching one another by beakers and tubes and the fragments of living tissue that make up the Monster.

The story of Mary and Percy Shelley's marriage is an incredible template through which to view our relationships and our projects.

Now, I place the third transparency upon the other two. It is the tapestry of our own lives at Watershed. Some of the images are closer to me than the others. I see our families represented by the Shelleys, Frankensteins, and DeLaceys. I like it when I see Bev, Erik, Sean and I placed atop the DeLacey's rustic cottage filled with books, learning and loving. I am horrified when I see us shift over to the Frankensteins who care for each other's physical needs but do not care about how we create each other's characters. I am weighed down when the picture of Margaret Saville and Robert Walton become the faces of Bev and I, when we isolate and drift farther away from one another because our life projects have separated us.

I focus back to my own face and see beneath it Percy and Victor. The illustration contains wild revolutionary ideals, painstaking research, lots of debts, financial and relational, and a ton of ego. I see the Monster and I realize that upon that miserable creature, who contained his maker's hopes and dreams, is placed Cornerstone and Watershed - my Monster. Instead of test tubes and beakers, I see traditions, ideas, and techniques, all intended to be of great benefit to humanity. The eyes of the Monster and the eyes of Watershed reveal its soul which craves a mate, yearns for acceptance, and while intrinsically sensitive and intelligent, lashes out in rage, hurt and anger. Sometimes mysteriously, almost comically were it not so sad, I see our children with arms extended walking Creature-like toward me. They too are the children of Prometheus, "made" but not yet created or truly parented.

Not focusing on any one story or transparency, I look down at all three in front of me and see the colors mingle, the lines co-join and a sense of pattern and beauty emerge. It is a hard won beauty. I can only visualize it though tears of recognition. It is as if we shed our tears on the transparency and the water from them blends the picture into something whole. It takes the tears of terror, the wholeness of horror, to blend our stories with that of others into a unified artwork. Only then is there even a chance that the man and woman, child and parent, monster and maker ever are reconciled. But you must want it more than your individual dreams, more than your domestic securities.

When our tears have produced a desire, a deep enough regret of our pride, then we will be married, part of a human family which has accepted our limits, when we can love our monstrosity and recognize our origins not in what we think is our maker but in the Creator.

The home of love

image by Ariel Burger